Solo in Uttar Pradesh: Vrindavan – Agra – Varanasi

You may recall I had earlier written about how the hospitality and caring culture of Himachal Pradesh SHOCKED me. It was my first experience of random strangers going completely out of their way to help and make me – solo on the road – feel at home! I am remembering that experience as I write this article. So unusual and intriguing it is to find friendliness, awesomeness and helping hands when I am randomly traveling on my own. You would think that by now I would start getting used to it, but not really.

I went on a short 1 week trip in September, 2014 to Vrindavan – Agra – Varanasi. As I was planning for it, I decided to be extra cautious as this is Uttar Pradesh. Many of these north Indian states like Utter Pradesh and Bihar are quite infamous as an uncouth culture. e-Commerce sites like Flipkart don’t deliver high value products here because there have been cases where the courier delivery boy is kidnapped or his delivery is robbed at gun point! Yeah, this is true story.

So anyway I felt confident enough because I have been solo traveling for a while… and now I can travel even UP. I was in for a real surprise……. pleasantly,

The people turned out to be Sweet. Yea, that is the word I would use. From a conversation with a cycle rickshaw chachu (uncle) about how he should buy a motorcycle and stop cycling in Agra to the most helpful airport attendant at Varanasi airport – I met some amazingly helpful, friendly and sweet people in this land of red stained teeth and paan.

I spent half a day in Vrindavan, with a private car and driver. Generally I don’t take a private car – as I usually travel budget and because I think public transport is safer. But this transpired because,

I was traveling in train from Mumbai to Mathura. As usual the people around me started with ‘You are alone…where you are going and yadi yadi yada…..’. Most of the times unless I feel suspicious, I tell the truth. So I plunged into “Yes, I travel alone… I want to see the world and experience the culture and all so I just took off on my own… blah blah… I am really keen to see the ghats of Varanasi….. ” So once they got over the unusual-ness of the situation- they all pitched in with what all I should do in Mathura, once I get off this train. One of the uncles actually was getting down with me at Mathura so he insisted that I should take a private taxi… and he even picked out a ‘proper’ person for me and bargained a good rate.

Earlier I may have been very wary and not gone with this uncle. But I have experienced a lot of such cultures where the people will take charge and ensure I have a good time like I am their daughter. So I kept my eyes and ears open … saw the taxi guy was legit, took his card and all. Asked the driver for the car number which I sent out as SMS in front of him. So all the various formalities taken care off…. had a good time driving around Mathura and Vrindavan with this local chap.

The driver was decent. I went to couple of usual temples around this holy twin-towns – Mathura & Vrindavan. Nice experience. The Banke Bihari temple especially had a real charm – with a quaint little post office inside. Rows of sadhu-beggars kept begging with ‘Ram-Ram’ and priests from nearby temples asked for offerings. Calls of “Shanivaar, shani ka dhaar” – offer to Shani dev! Sweets shops were many, and I kept wondering whether to try out some delicacies. It was actually more like what I expected Varanasi to be.

I visited Prem Puri ashram because apparently it is a wonder to see. I found it so-so. Most disturbing is that they have included the idol of their leader as part of the Krishna- Radha-Hanuman team. I have major issues with this and especially considering their leader and disciples are accused (and some found guilty) of Rape I am not even inclined to research their path.

Vrindavan, Prem Puri
Made from marble imported all the way from Italy… whadever…

 

Krishna, Vrindavan
A big complex, lot of space and a picturesque white marble temple. If only the organization had a better rep. The leader has many rape cases on him.. while some of their followers are actually convicted for molestation.

The Iskcon temple on the other hand I thought was decent. Some old lady tried to sell me some books but that is common here. Always trying to convert people – most of these paths. But overall I trust this path… when I go to the temples I feel some good energy and like to do their chanting dance. Hare Rama- Hare Rama – Rama – Hare Hare…

Iskcon, Vrindavan
This is the samadhi structure of Prabhupada – the Iskcon leader. The main temple of Krishna / Rama n all is further inside.

This is the temple where their founder Prabhupada’s samadhi is. I sat there for a bit. Some bhajans were going on there too as in the main temple shrine. A monk tried talking to me here… which I would have enjoyed but I have a karmic response to monks trying to chat with me. I tend to ignore or simple not respond to them. Anyway… that is a whole different story.

Most of these temples have a very interesting canteen. Lot of sweetmeats and foods. So if you go there, do try out some of the foods, sweet-stuff and drinks.

I then went off the beaten path on a little search for a Shaktipeeth. Apparently there is a Mahadev Bhuteshwar Mandir which is a shaktipeeth but I was not able to find it. I searched around, finally made my way to an old looking, slightly dilapidated temple which was part of a chawl type housing complex. They however told me that this is the Bhudev mandir, but this was not the shaktipeeth. They also told me “Hold on to your spectacles otherwise the monkeys will flick them away” :p

Apparently another temple I had already passed was the Shaktipeeth. So much for that. But this search led me to some not so touristy areas and small lanes as well. I enjoyed getting a little inside view of this town.

Then we headed off to Agra. The people here were the biggest surprise for me and probably this is the craziest-somewhat-romantic encounter I have had here,

Solo in Uttar Pradesh
Agra Fort – Apparently you get the best view of Taj Mahal from this fort.

 

Solo in Uttar Pradesh
Welcome to the Taj Mahal…. 🙂

The car dropped me off outside Taj Mahal. Here a lot of rickshaw folks and other ‘guides’ were approaching me which I clearly shrugged off. But there was one good, authoritative chap who befriended me. This guy was the Thekedaar of one of the rickshaw stands. Not entirely clearly what that means but basically he has some kind of authority and clout in the area. His language showed some education and academic sense.

Not sure, maybe he just took a liking to me as I was a solo traveler but he started showing me around. I was little wary of this guy… but then his help was very useful. Usually all tourists & travelers are dropped off at the West Gate of Taj Mahal. Because of this, there is a VERY long line there….. I would have had to stand there for 45 mins or so… but thankfully due to this Thekedaar fellow I got to know about the East gate which is just 5 mins walk from the West Gate!

I bought my Taj Mahal audio guide (I love audio guides) from the West Gate ticket area – which he didn’t like. He wanted to give me a personal tour of the place. Then we went off to the East gate through a market like area. I asked this guy many questions to fathom the local culture and also to gauge whether he was a drug peddler or a kidnapper or some such nefarious sort. At East gate, as he had suggested there was absolutely no line. I was able to buy my entry ticket and enter in a few minutes. Apparently this Thekedaar fellow wouldn’t enter from here but he would catch up with me inside.

I never did meet him inside because I saw no reason to and I really wanted to explore Taj on my own. But this fellow – gave me almost a VIP entry into Taj Mahal. I had told him first thing itself that I am not interested in paying him or any such thing so not entirely sure what the guy wanted. Some traveler friends suggested that they are usually looking out for romantic adventures with the female travelers. First experience of such a kind… and it was not really unpleasant. As long as a decent, well spoken person genuinely helps and befriends me.. then it is a nice encounter… and maybe someone else may even have a nice, memorable romantic encounter with him. I anyway wasn’t enticed… but as you might imagine this was a whole different experience for me.

Solo in Uttar Pradesh
Taj Mahal… just the way it looks in the pictures :p

 

Taj Mahal
How do I take a shot with out the public? ^-^

 

Anyway I didn’t meet him after that. After exiting the Taj, the Rickshaw people kept asking me where I wanted to go. Finally asked one chap ‘How much will it be…’ and he said 15 Rupees. This was crazy, because 15 is so dirt cheap, I would not even bargain! Guess there is lot of poverty here, because all the rickshaw drivers I found in Agra would be more than happy to charge 15/- and would wait for 30 mins just for 5/-

Crazy. Sweet. Inexpensive

Yamuna, Taj Mahal
Serene Yamuna front behind the Taj… .

 

Taj Mahal
Standing at the Taj and clicking the entrance Gate

 

Later in the day I had to take a train from Agra to Varanasi. Stay warned this route is very unreliable for newbies. Many of the trains are very, very late by over 4 hours! So it is very important to research out the better trains like the Ajmer – Sealdah express. My train happened to be one which got delayed by 4 hours, so I was at Agra station at 8 pm without a train connection. I basically hung around the station masters office and kept requesting him… highlighting the fact that I just need one ticket – I am an abla naari (helpless lady) ;D

Finally at 9pm (yea hung around there for an hour or so…) he called me to the other platform and gave me a 2 AC ticket. I was so happy.. .and it was a nice train. Would reach Varanasi next day early in the morning. 🙂

I managed to do my yoga in the train and then even got a veg thali for dinner. 🙂

This was the first time I have managed to get a ticket last minute like this through the station master and pay ‘extra’ and all that. So quite happy with myself. You should know that the Agra – Varanasi railway line is notorious. Trains can be crazy late. Also they often have 100 waitlist which gets confirmed. So just take the best train – like Ajmer- Sealdah express – and book Waitlist. Usually it will get confirmed.

Outside Varanasi
Early morning. Just a bit from Mughal Serai town near Varanasi. Lovely fields and okay weather.

Varanasi gave me a whole different kind of shock… but the people there were also quite sweet.

Agra & Vrindavan both turned out to be really quaint towns, I would like to spend more time here. Vrindavan especially, as there would be many ancient temples to explore and possibly has a lot of stories.

More than that, my entire time in these towns (and Varanasi) really broke down stereotypes about Uttar Pradesh. Solo in Uttar Pradesh and it was completely fine – as good as any other place in India. Women can solo travel here – and pretty well at that. These towns Mathura-Agra-Varanasi are all touristy places so I would also like to go a bit internal to not so touristy places and experience the culture there… but I am hopeful that it would also be pleasant. 🙂

I will write more stories from here including people encounters in Varanasi soon, so stay tuned. 🙂

Woman Solo Travel & the Indian Family #1

How did you get your parents to allow you?? – A lot of women and men too, have asked me this question when they realize that I am solo traveling. For a lot of Indian parents the idea of their daughter traveling solo is bizarre and fraught with danger. Here I can share with you my experiences with Solo travel & my very Indian family.

The person you are

One aspect that a lot of people don’t realise is that rules are not the same for everyone. Who you are as a person, and what impression you have created in the past and so on, lead to people allowing or not allowing you. In this case it depends on you as a daughter. Me for example, prior to solo traveling, I had already been traveling on my own to relatives houses, visited my brother when he was posted abroad and so on. All these things as you realise are completely socially acceptable and not something your parents would object to.

I also had an ashram in Coimbatore, which I used to keep visiting very often, again on my own. Finally instead of traveling back n forth I even stayed there full time for a while. This was difficult for my parents but I was able to manage it. Sadhguru helped me with this – because I had also gone to him and asked him the same question, ‘I want to come to the ashram but parents won’t allow it’. So he just said well tell them ‘This is what you want to do’.

So I told my parents in a very positive and open way that see ‘This is what I want to do.’ & the whole thing just went through very smoothly. So I usually attribute many of the best things in my life to Sadhguru. Once I returned from the ashram after a year, then I did many different things in life. Solo travel also just happened…. there was never really a ‘how did your parents allow you’ situation at all.

I asked my mom to share her experience about the matter, and here is what she has to say,

moms-views

I see that a lot of us very often are so sure that “My parents won’t allow it” that we never really even go and ask. Or if we do ask, we put forth the case with so much of negativity or closed kind of mindset that the parents respond like wise and say ‘no’.

So here is a simple way I suggest that you can firstly take permission from your parents for Solo Travel,

1) Tell your parents that you want to do this: Do this in a positive and friendly way. Be open that they may hedge around a few times at least. But if you stick to your positive approach, I feel they would respond like wise.

2) Lay GroundWork: This needs to be done in advance. Like I explained earlier, you need to make your parents feel that you are capable for it. Go solo to relatives houses in other cities and countries. If you can stay solo for work or other reason for a while then nothing like it as this allows you also to grow and your parents will feel less protective towards you. This also in fact, prepares you for solo travel.

3) Start with trips which are simple, small and safe: Maybe just the weekend to a nearby ‘safe’ place. Like Pondicherry, Mysore, Pune… depends on where you are located. Find a place to stay which is recommended by another woman solo traveler. Ask me if you need names. So it’s a simple trip you know – travel to the place is booked, accommodation is booked. And both of them are reasonably safe as you have taken recommendations for the same.

4) Share with them stories of women bravery and inspiration. This I feel all of us should do because we just need to make the whole overall environment for women much more positive. Especially now a days so many great stories are coming out of women doing so many things…. slip in stories of other women who are solo traveling. Me, if you like 😉

In fact I also do this. I am always telling my Mom about the other solo women travelers I meet on the road. I am sure my Mom feels better having met some of my solo traveling women friends who visited me at home when they were in Mumbai. The fact that one of them way way younger to me, helped too. 😉

So the parents when it comes to solo travel shouldn’t be too difficult. You have to put in the proper ground work though. Also as much as possible, keep it as positive a situation as possible in your heart & mind at least. Sometimes on the outside things may become negative, but when within yourself things are positive then situations eventually turn better.

Lastly, keep parents updated once you do manage to travel. One call a day. This one call a day is also important for your own safety. This way someone else (parents or spouse or who ever) knows where you were planning to go, in case you disappear or something.

So this was about the parents & near family. What about the other family – the extended one? Will share few experiences on that in another blog on the same…. 😉

Kanyakumari – Morality & Magic

On my month long trip this January I reached an impasse, I had been on the road for 20 or so days and then reached Bangalore. From Bangalore I had no idea where to go. I planned to go to Pondicherry but there was some Aurobindo event and hence all accommodations were full. Finally got a room at TTDC in Kanyakumari so I left for it in a sleeper bus from Bangalore.

Going there was the usual enjoyable bus trips. Just a few hours before reaching KK I noticed that the landscape had changed. Instead of trees there were more stunted bushes and there were some very interesting hill range in the distance. Then the biggest shock n awe of all – WIND FARM!!

The view is unbelievable. The first windmill comes into view and I am just staring… and soon lots n lots more. I cannot believe how I have not heard that the biggest wind farm in the world is in namma Nagercoil Tirunelveli a few km before kanyakumari!

So then a little shaken and disbelieving I enter into Kanyakumari. A quick look at the Vivekananda ashram, which has a decent bhojnalaya (cafeteria) and then to TTDC for my budget room.

The room was pretty decent, though since interacting with the staff and then onto the streets to explore I started feeling somewhat queer. Not sure what – there would be a group of people snickering at me, some hesitation in waiters when they served me – something just felt odd.

I have spent a decent amount of time in Tamil Nadu, in fact I can even speak broken Tamil so this was weird. First I was wondering whether my hair was all messy (a usual feeling after all the traveling). Then I wondered about my clothing… but soon I caught on that there were two reasons,

1. The Cultural Place for a solo woman

I noticed in the restaurants it is usually the men who would wave the waiter over and order the food, not the women. If a single woman is sitting then the waiter pretty much ignores her for a while at least. I am obviously not used such stuff so I actively wave the waiter over and he comes grudgingly.

2. Western ClotheS

Then I started noticing the public and overall it was a more rural or small city folks. Probably these girls seeing my flair pants and superman tee found something amusing. whatever.

Anyway so the next day I just switched to a salwar kameez (traditional Indian dress) and things were better.

The other problem was value for money – there was none.

The TTDC room was great – 400/- for a decent room. Apart from that however finding decent food was a task. All the restaurants seemed to have the same menu, I think they xerox copied it from each other – I don’t know what that means.. but I kept seeing the same menu sheet in all restaurants. More than half the stuff was not available. They charged good, often expensive rates and yet the quality was just not upto the mark.

I had accommodation in TTDC only for a day then I had to shift to another hotel. Half the hotels I asked supposedly had a rule that single people are not allowed due to a LeT threat from Sri Lanka. Whatever. Anyway that got managed as couple of them were ok giving me a room. I asked the person who gave me room whether he didn’t follow that single person rule or what, he said, “We can make out a person from their walk n talk” Okay whatever buddy. As long as you get I am not a LeT terrorist – just a girl into yoga and spiritual well being.

On top of all this there was no internet. I asked Vodafone and they said it was because Kanyakumari is so near the ocean that no transmission is reachable. Finally only on the third day did I find a good place for internet and food both, Hotel Seaview. They provide internet access for 100/- an hour or so. The speeds are good and you can sit in their lobby. They also have a great breakfast buffet which was worth the money, thank god!

So I would say this adventure was a lot of learning. The wind blew so strongly… Thar she blows.

Wharf - Kanyakumari
Small beach n wharf at Kanyakumari with some colorful boats
Kanyakumari Church
I saw this church from the coast line but I wanted to explore the actual village in Kanyakumari. So while roaming around amidst the poorer huts I came to it.
Thiruvalluvar Statue, Kanyakumari
Amazing monuments – The Vivekananda Stone, The Thiruvallavur – a Tamil poet Statue and this is also where the three different ocean waters meet. Quite an exciting place!
Vivekananda Temple, Kanyakumari
The Vivekananda Temple. There is a meditation room below it. It looks all serene from the pic but the wind is blowing like crazy… its practically buffeting us! Imagine Vivekananda sitting there in that wind without any structure and meditating.. its crazy!

I spent rest of my time ruminating on how I wasn’t like Vivekananda who came to this place and felt so strongly that he swam through the ocean to meditate on that rock. While I just loitered around dissatisfied with the people. Hmmph.